Monthly Archives: April 2014

Blur.

Slow down! Great advice from Chloe H-D.

By Chloe ’16

Blur.

That’s the best word I can use to describe this year so far. That, and cold. But I’m willing to forgive mother nature for that bit of chill, especially after some of the beautiful weather she’s given us recently. What a blessing it’s been!

The days have been flying by in groups, recently. Regardless of the weather, I’ve come to realize a bittersweet reality: It’s graduation season AGAIN. Last year’s graduation season was tough, but this year it feels different. The graduating seniors will always be “The Juniors” to me, and (it may sound crazy, but) I always seem to forget that all classes graduate eventually. Though this summer will no doubt be an awesome one for us all, I’m still kind of sad to see the seniors go.

But something pretty cool occurred at the end of today’s blur. After semi-halfheartedly tossing paint at…

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Overdue round-up

Things have been so busy in the last week that I haven’t had time to put my thoughts down on my blog. Leaving out the personal stuff (my wedding is this weekend), here’s what’s been going on:

Presentation to the board: On Saturday our Associate Head of School and I gave an hour-long presentation to the board on the topic of “Trends in Education.” Our PowerPoint (yes, we used PowerPoint — sorry) was actually titled “Disruption Technology,” but that was just our internal working title. I’m not interested in summarizing the whole presentation here, but a few highlights include:

  • One member of the board referenced Thomas Friedman’s book That Used to Be Us, and I wanted to get into a tangential conversation with him about it. There wasn’t time, so I’ll make my point here. We had a slide in our presentation about the STEAM movement and how it reimagines STEM. That’s the whole reason why STEAM appeals to me: instead of focusing our education here in the US on skills that would have us competing with Asian nations in the STEM areas, it aims to continue the legacy of companies like Apple that have distinguished themselves from the crowd via innovation and great design. We should hope to continue to be the source of ideas for the world. Why do we want our kids to grow up and do the low margin stuff?
  • A highlight that was actually a lowlight occurred when I was a little too strong in my stereotyping of home-schooled kids. In truth, I respect the home-schooling movement, and I was trying in the moment to explain how it could become a more worrisome competitor for schools like ours. The State of Pennsylvania has a free online high school that is designed to be a tool for home-schooling, and although it is not yet on par with what we do (in my opinion, of course), it might be . . . soon. Our Director of Admissions helpfully corrected my comments by pointing out that we have been very welcoming to home-schooled kids who apply to attend our school. I regret that the correction was necessary!
  • The key success of the presentation is that it got the people in the room to embrace the idea that we need to be thinking about technology as we draft our next strategic plan. That was the outcome I was hoping for, but I and my co-presenter didn’t want to just write that on a slide speak it as our truth. We must have done our job correctly since the members of the board were able to reach the conclusion we hoped for without being led by the nose. I’m not surprised by their insight; they are a wise and experienced group. I am surprised that I made it through the presentation without totally embarrassing myself. 

PSA to Department Heads: Two days after the board meeting, I found myself with 30 minutes on the agenda of the Department Heads meeting. I was there to tell them about what I’m doing with blogging in my class and how the English department is planning to incorporate blogging into our summer reading assignments. I had overprepared for the board meeting, so I was underprepared for the Department Heads. Fortunately it was a friendly crowd, and I received lots of useful feedback. I was glad to hear several department heads express their support and suggest that they would pick up the ball and run with it next year. In other words, if the students come back from summer vacation with academic blogs already set up, they can see themselves and their department-mates assigning those students some blogging assignments from time to time. I wish that I had spoken far less than I did and left more room for questions and comments. There were many friends in the room trying to get a word in to show their support, and I kept doing most of the talking. If they are reading this, I apologize. 

#gsgrammar: In the midst of all of this, I held an online review session for the big freshman grammar test. The session ran from 8-9pm on Sunday night, using Twitter. I had about six active participants and something like eight lurkers (out of a freshman class of roughly 115 students). I was hoping for twenty-plus participants, so I was disappointed, but the format and all of my preparation worked well. I printed out the review questions, then took photos of them with my cell phone, and then tweeted them out at a rate of roughly one every four minutes. I ran through sixteen questions in all (eight in each of two formats), and the students who participated got a solid review experience. It was interesting that some adults who follow me on Twitter (teachers, of course) started reacting to the questions. There might be room out there for a weekly grammar quiz open to everybody, not just our students. I haven’t Storyfied the chat yet. Sorry; I’ll try to insert a link later. 

That’s all for now. Busy time. 

Coping with Change

Under the leadership of facilitator Starr Sackstein, this morning’s #sunchat was on the topic of change. In particular, we discussed how we as educators have changed over time, but I’m also equally interested in how we deal with change in the profession in general.

There seems to be a perception that the rate of change in the world is increasing. I’ve heard that from many frustrated colleagues, and business strategy experts whom I respect say the same thing. I’m not convinced that this is true, but in the secondary education corner of the American economy, change is happening very fast. In the independent school world, threats to our business model from technological disruptors are real, and we have to wonder about the sustainability of our financial model. I can’t insist that the industry bend itself to my will and change in the ways that I’d like to see, so the wisest path for me is to adapt to the changing environment and keep my skills relevant. That means embracing new technology, apps, media, and so forth. It also requires an openness to different models of structuring class itself, such as Genius Hour, project based learning, etc. As Starr mentions on her blog post on this topic, http://starrsackstein.com/category/times-they-are-a-changin-are-you/ , professional development has changed, too. I’ve already earned one Master’s Degree at night while working full-time; I’m not likely to seek another. Instead, professional development is going to come in the form of badges from online learning sources and social media interactions with a personal learning network (PLN) will supply much of what I learn about what’s going on in the field.

Starr’s post on this topic includes a bulleted list of ways in which she has changed since the beginning of her career. I’ll try to list some here:

  • I began my career with a traditional, college preparatory concept of grading. Now I’m a grades-resistant educator under the influence of Alfie Kohn. That goes for my rejection of rubrics, too.
  • Before I began working at my current school, I had a vague sense of values that I thought were important to inculcate in my students. Today, the Quaker values of Friends schools have chrystalized for me what is most important in this area.
  • I started my career teaching seventh graders, then spent some time teaching twelfth graders. Now I have grown comfortable teaching ninth and tenth grades (which I have done for the last eight years).
  • Early in my career I chose not to live on campus at the boarding school where I was working. Now I see residential life as a major component of my identity as a teacher. I may well be living in campus housing for the next thirty years.
  • For a long time I was resistant to the idea of taking on administrative duties. I liked being a vocal leader within the faculty (i.e. a loud-mouthed critic), and I sometimes viewed the administration as “them.” Now I enjoy my little assistant dean gig, and I wouldn’t cringe at the idea of doing more work of that nature.
  • I’ve undergone a drastic change shift in my knowledge and embrace of technology just in the last year. This blog, my rabid use of Twitter, and a whole host of things I’m doing with my students are a testament to that.
  • I got into teaching through coaching. I thought I’d be coaching one or more seasons of interscholastic sports . . . forever. Today I find myself without coaching duties at all. I miss coaching fencing, but my world has not stopped spinning just because I’m not a coach anymore.
  • I care a lot about authenticity now. I wouldn’t have known what that term means in an educational context if you had asked me ten years ago.
  • I used to be very snooty and old-fashioned in my ideas about what a “good college” was. Changes in the higher ed landscape and changes in the US economy have shifted my ideas on this. I’m very happy these days when I see my students accepted by colleges at which I used to sneer, and if they can make the financial piece of the puzzle work without taking on too much debt, I’m even happier.

I’m sure there are many more examples I could think of, but it’s a busy weekend in the deans’ office, so that’s all for now.

Discussing Mary Gaitskill’s “The Little Boy”

My sophomores are in the midst of a short unit in which we are reading some contemporary short stories. Last night they read Mary Gaitskill’s “The Little Boy” (anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories from 2008). This story is a lot different from the two previous stories we read (Roddy Doyle’s “Black Hoodie” and Steven Millhauser’s “A Change in Fashion”). It is a meticulously crafted reflection on an elderly woman’s life. Our narrator, Bea Davis, reminisces as she moves through an airport, and little by little, the secrets of her life are revealed. It’s a wonderful story to analyze with students since close reading gradually yields a web of clues that come together to add up to a fuller picture of Bea Davis.

The central conflict of the story exists within Bea. She still loves her deceased husband, Mac, whom she divorced after her daughters were grown, and her daughters don’t understand why. Ultimately, she still loves him because their love was strong and true, despite his abusiveness and rage. He cheated on Bea, too; he was out with another woman when Bea was giving birth to their first child. But life is complicated, as my student Sara explained, and Bea recognizes this. Her daughters can’t understand why Bea could be so affected by Mac’s death. She “had nothing but contempt” for him, her eldest daughter chides her. But real adult relationships, Bea understands, are not so simple.

The part of the story that works well for me, but less successfully for my students, is the motif of The Mikado.  Bea replays in her mind songs from the show, which her daughters performed in a neighbor’s garage when they were little. I’m a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and I know The Mikado well, so I can see the author at work using the show symbolically. The Mikado is a show full of lies and (hilarious) deceit, and Mac’s life was full of deceit, too. He clumsily carried on his affair, but the truth was found in the unsent love letters he wrote. His ex-wife and daughters discovered them when they cleaned out his house after his death. The story also references the beautiful song, “The Sun Whose Rays are all Ablaze,” which was sung by one of Bea’s daughters. The memory of her beautiful daughter singing that song as a child (off-key) contrasts with the challenging adults her daughters have grown to be.

Sample for my students

This post is just a placeholder. I’m teaching my students some basic skills for promoting their blogs, so I’m going to demonstrate what happens when you tweet out a promotional link in real time. Then we are going to zip over to https://ifttt.com/ to look at other ways to make our blogs talk to assorted social media sites and note-taking sites. I’m not an Instagram user, but I’m guessing some of my students might like the ifttt recipes that allow them to tag an Instagram shot so that it auto-posts to their blog. I also back up my blog posts in Evernote using an ifttt recipe. Do I look at those back-up copies very often? No, I don’t. But it could be useful some day when I want to take advantage of Evernote’s excellent search function. Overall, I want my students’ blogs to be more than just something they are doing for my class. They are hopefully going to find uses across the curriculum.  

The Trite Posterization of Connected Educators

Almost every aspect of the Connected Educators movement energizes and motivates me. The sharing of resources and experiences, the generous spirit towards strangers, the collective desire to improve the entire system: all of these characteristics make it a pleasure to interact with fellow teachers and administrators from all over the country (and overseas). Whether just starting out in their careers or veterans of 30+ school years, these fine folks consistently impress me with their smarts and insight.

But there is one trend in the Twitterverse that is ruining the joy of all this connecting. I’m refering to the glib aphorisms that are transmitted via digital “posters,” attached to tweets, and then spread like wildfires through the assorted hashtags used by edchatters. These saccharine, feel-good, trite, quasi-haiku are nauseating. They reduce the goals and challenges of teaching to a sentence or two, and in the process dumb-down our very intellectually rich profession and turn it into gooey motivational drivel.

One that’s going around right now says: “I don’t teach curriculum. I teach kids. And I love every minute of it.” This statement has its heart in the right place, as almost all of these posterized maxims do. But it’s stupid. The verb “to teach” can take as its object both the material that is being taught and the recipient of the teaching. In reality teachers do both: we teach the curriculum and we teach the students — at the same time! Most of us enjoy both, too. This poster also wags the finger of judgment at all of the wrong-headed teachers out there who love math or American history but hate kids. Mind you, I’ve never actually met any of those teachers.

Another poster reads: “Everyone has a little hero in them / Our job as educators is to help this hero find its way[.]” Is that our job? I don’t believe myself to be in the hero-making business. I’d be perfectly satisfied if my students grew up to be knowledgable, moral, and happy. They don’t need to be heroic. In fact I’d rather teach them the value of humility. I’m struck by this poster’s contrast to the Quaker belief, “There is that of God in everyone.” Those of us who teach at Friends schools live by that creed, but that doesn’t mean I want to stick it on a poster and tweet it. Having that of God within you means that you have value and dignity, and you have the potential to do good. (At least that’s how I see it.) I am happy if my former students live humbly, pursuing their interests and their dreams as they see fit. They don’t need to be heroes to prove their worth to society.

The folks at the College Board posterized this statement and tweeted it out: “As I look back on my life, I realize that every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being re-directed to something better.” That’s a charming sentiment, and it’s pleasant that the makers of AP exams are tweeting it out right as students are learning about whether or not they were accepted by elite colleges and universities. Maybe it would be less completely covered in slime if it wasn’t sent by a company whose business is so directly intertwined with crushing the dreams of young people. As for the actual argument of the quotation, it is a good habit of mind to look at life’s setbacks in this fashion. On the other hand, life is full of actual, material setbacks that do affect us adversely. You can’t prove a counter-factual, so how do I know that getting rejected by my first choice college was actually a good thing? If you are rejected for the clinical trial of an experimental cancer drug that might extend your life, I don’t see a lot of upside.

One last poster: “Teachers plant seeds that grow forever.” Alright, alright. I like that one. It’s a lovely metaphor, and it’s true.

I might look more kindly on the creators of these posters if I didn’t have suspicions about their motives. The posters get retweeted and passed around more virulantly than ebola, so producing a popular one is a cheap ticket for the Twitter-fame Express. More followers! Look at me — I’m a “thought leader”! I’m more impressed by the educational researchers who post links to their data-rich, 10,000-word blog posts. Sure, their arguments won’t fit on a Post-It, and they don’t look great tacked to the wall of a classroom or faculty lounge, but they elevate the discourse instead of dumbing it down.